Belgium emerged from World War II in a much stronger position than its neighbors. Fighting in Belgium was more fluid than elsewhere, and most of the cities and the countryside escaped extensive damage. The port of Antwerp became a major Allied base in the closing months of the war.
Belgium did not escape political turmoil, however. King Leopold III had concluded an armistice with the Germans on 28 May 1940 after only a brief stand and in violation of pledges given to Britain and France after those nations had come to Belgium's assistance. Leopold also chose not to accompany his ministers into exile in London and remained in Belgium. A popular decision at the time with many Belgians, it nonetheless created a constitutional problem. Many Belgians came to suspect Leopold of pro-German sympathies, and he further angered many Belgians by remarrying in wartime and choosing a commoner.
The German occupiers removed Leopold to Germany in June 1944, and when the country was liberated that fall his brother, Prince Charles, Count of Flanders, became regent. There was strong socialist opposition to a restoration of the monarchy, and it was not until a March 1950 referendum gave Leopold a 58 percent favorable vote that he actually attempted to regain his throne. His return precipitated both massive demonstrations and a political crisis, causing him to relinquish control of affairs to his son, Baudouin, and abdicate altogether in 1951. Baudouin was king until his death in 1993.
The same major parties that had predominated before the war continued afterward. The conservative Christian Social Party (PSC; Flemish name Christian People's Party) drew its greatest support from the Flemings. The socialists represented the working classes and unions and were strong in Wallonia. The Liberal Party (called the Party of Liberty and Progress after 1961) was strong among the middle class, especially in Brussels, and favored economic liberalism and anticlericalism.
There was little disagreement over postwar foreign policy. Belgium abandoned its pre–World War II neutrality and embraced the 1948 Brussels defense pact with Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Britain, and France that was the forerunner of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which Belgium also joined. Belgium was also a leader in the European unification movement. It had agreed to economic union with Luxembourg in 1922, and in 1949 Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands agreed to a customs union. In February 1959 the three states signed the Benelux Treaty, which went into effect the next year and provided for the free movement of labor, capital, and trade among the three states. Belgium was also a driving force behind the European economic unification movement that led to the 1952 European Coal and Steel Community and the 1958 European Economic Community. Belgian socialist politician Paul Henri Spaak (foreign minister during 1936–1939, 1947–1949, 1954–1957, and 1961–1966 and premier during 1938–1939, 1946, and 1947–1949) is rightly regarded as one of the fathers of European integration.
In the years immediately after the war, Belgium's African colonies of the Congo and Ruanda-Urundi remained calm with little agitation for independence. Belgium had long exploited the raw materials–rich Congo, especially the copper deposits of Katanga province. However, the colony was among the worst-administered of any in Africa. The native population received only limited technical training, and there had been no preparation for independence. There were few native university graduates, doctors, or trained administrators. The calm in Congo was shattered by riots in the capital of Leopoldville (Kinshasa) in December 1959, prompted in large part by the French grant of independence for the neighboring French Congo (Congo-Brazzaville). In January 1960 King Baudouin announced his intention to end colonial rule, leading to Congolese independence in June 1960. Immediately thereafter, the Congo lapsed into a bloody civil war. Belgium dispatched troops to protect its national interests, but these were withdrawn following the arrival of peacekeeping forces mandated by the United Nations (UN). Several years of fighting over the secession of Katanga followed. In 1962 the UN voted to end the Belgian trusteeship over Ruanda-Urundi, established after World War I. This action led to the independent states of Rwanda and Burundi.
The major issue in Belgium during the Cold War era was the linguistics quarrel between Flemings, speaking a dialect of Dutch, and Walloons, who spoke French. After independence in 1830, the Walloons initially dominated both politically and culturally. Following World War I, however, the more rural Flemings of northern and western Belgium began challenging Fleming ascendancy, and both French and Flemish were made official languages for administrative purposes in their respective regions, with the capital city of Brussels to be bilingual.
In the 1960s the Flemish movement, seeking the Dutchification of Flanders, again intensified. Disturbances that year reflected economic as well as linguistic dissatisfaction. The Walloons lived in the part of the country experiencing the most economic problems, especially with the depletion of the coal mines in southern Belgium. The steel industry was also outdated. New industry tended to locate in the Flemish areas, especially around Antwerp, in part because of better transportation facilities.
The focus of the controversy became the University of Louvain (Leuven) in Flanders. Flemings had long wanted this university exclusively theirs. The issue was settled only by its division into separate Flemish and Walloon institutions. Mostly French-speaking Brussels also figured in the agitation. Many Flemings resented the fact that the national capital remained a Walloon enclave inside Flemish territory.
The linguistic division cut across party lines. In general, Flemings supported the Christian Socialists, while Walloons favored the Socialists and Liberals. By the late 1960s, dual ministers were in place for such areas as education, culture, and the economy. Finally, in 1980 a limited degree of regional autonomy took effect, with each half of Belgium securing its own regional assembly and executives. A federal structure rooted itself with three socioeconomic regions in Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels. Constitutional revisions in 1991 and 1994 confirmed this structure, granting the regions limited rights to levy taxes.
Another contentious issue was the political cleavage in Belgium between Catholics and non-Catholics that centered on school financing. The issue was finally settled by a compromise whereby the state would add to teacher salaries in church-sponsored schools but would not subsidize building construction.
Spencer C. Tucker
Fitzmaurice, John. The Politics of Belgium: A Unique Federalism. 2nd ed. London: Hurst, 1996.; Helmreich, Jonathan. United States Relations with Belgium and the Congo, 1940–1960. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998.; Lijphart, Arendt. Conflict and Coexistence in Belgium: The Dynamics of a Culturally Divided Society. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.